How can Lafayette keep its college grads?

A man crosses a street on a bicycle.
A cyclist rides his bike across East Lewis Street near a newly constructed bike path on the University of Louisiana's Lafayette campus. Photo by Alena Maschke

As Lafayette tries to stem the flow of young talent to other cities, students at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette say housing, transportation and connecting with the broader community are barriers to building lives here.

Students overwhelmingly saw housing affordability and difficulty getting around Lafayette as the city’s most substantial flaws in a survey of about 780 UL students conducted this fall. Young people say those issues keep them from establishing lives in Lafayette, and upperclassmen were notably more pessimistic about those problems locally in the survey’s results. 

Between 2017 and 2021, the Lafayette area’s pool of college grads under 25 shrunk by more than 700 people, most of whom moved out of state, according to UL economist Gary Wagner’s analysis of U.S. Census Bureau microdata. That was about a quarter of college graduates under 25 living here in 2017.

More than 85% of upperclassmen and graduate students surveyed said Lafayette’s affordable housing options were fair or poor compared to just under 15% who said they were at least good or even excellent.

That’s an immediate problem for students who are closer to graduating and are looking for the right place to launch their careers, according to Gretchen Vanicor, director of UL’s Office of Sustainability, which partnered with One Acadiana for the survey.

“Students identified affordable housing as one of the significant issues, the top three, that affect their quality of life and their connection to the community,” Vanicor said at last week’s reveal of the survey results. “And you can see there's a significant shift as students get into their junior and their senior years, graduate school. There is a significant shift in those that identify this as a barrier.”

Housing is a key factor in why people leave Lafayette in search of better paying jobs since the average cost of housing versus income in Lafayette is sometimes worse than it is in bigger cities like Houston, according to Wagner.

Locally Lafayette’s zoning codes are a barrier to expanded housing options that could be addressed by the city’s leaders. Many of the newly elected members of Lafayette’s city council, who will take office in January, told Straight News Online this fall that they would consider changing the development code to address the city’s need for more affordable housing.

New housing has been a key factor in the recent success of downtown Lafayette and it is a tool to continue developing the city center as an asset for all of Lafayette’s residents, says Downtown Development Authority CEO Anita Begnaud.

But capitalizing on downtown’s recent success also means improving its connection to students at UL, says Begnaud, a Church Point native who remained in Lafayette after graduating from the university. Students surveyed by One Acadiana reported being significantly more connected to the university than to communities outside of campus.

More than 75% of upperclassmen said that public transit and bikeability were fair at best or even poor in Lafayette, and 90% said the same for the city’s roads and traffic. Those are significant drawbacks to students, particularly because traffic patterns around the university effectively isolate it from the city center for pedestrians and bicyclists.

Bridging the gap between campus and downtown is at least one way to help students better connect with Lafayette, says Begnaud, who is hopeful the next City Council and mayor-president will prioritize improving the infrastructure necessary to support that connection.

“There's a desire amongst LCG leadership and the broader community, certainly UL, Downtown, One Acadiana… We need to find a way to physically connect Downtown and UL,” says Begnaud. “So it's like, how do we organize ourselves in a way to achieve that? And that needs to be a top priority of the LCG administration [in the next term].”

Downtown has already had some success building new connections with current UL students through its Ragin Cajuns Downtown Alive concert in August, says Begnaud. That event prioritized UL students by addressing many of the barriers they told One Acadiana were keeping them from developing stronger connections to Lafayette like having limited money for entertainment, not being aware of fun events and not being specifically invited to participate in them.

“The event was literally about them, so it was like us rolling out the proverbial red carpet to say, ‘We are throwing an event for you,’” says Begnaud. “So I really see it as a pilot that has proven out that if and when we do that, students will feel more connected.”